Category Archives: methodology

Indigenous and anti-racist methodologies

This new semester begins for many Universities with a ‘scholar strike,’ an action to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also to all forms of racism and the privilege that many Whites have in relation to others, referred to collectively as BIPOC. (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). This strike is meant to be a continuation of the need to undo Indigenous invisibility, anti-Blackness, dismantle white supremacy and advance racial justice.

Within research this can mean a number of things: listening to and learning about Indigenous research methodologies, reading research conducted by BIPOC, learning to talk, write, and review research in inclusive ways.

Indigenous methodologies

There is a growing body of literature on Indigenous research methodology, easily accessible through various search engines. Here, I want to simply introduce some initial thoughts about how an Indigenous research methodology may differ from other research methodologies.

Cora Weber-Pillwax suggests these basic principles that characterize Indigenous research methodology:

(a) the interconnectedness of all living things,

(b) the impact of motives and intentions on person and community,

(c) the foundation of research as lived indigenous experience,

(d) the groundedness of theories in indigenous epistemology,

(e) the transformative nature of research,

(f) the sacredness and responsibility of maintaining personal and  community integrity,

(g) the recognition of languages and cultures as living processes.

An Indigenous research agenda might look something like this:

Indigenous Epistemology

As with all research, presumptions about knowledge (epistemology), reality (ontology), and values (axiology) are foundational. In general, discussions of these foundations has been couched in long standing Euro-centric views. Even though many views on interpretive and critical research may accommodate an Indigenous worldview (for example, a social constructionist epistemology privileges inter-subjectivity and human connection) most nonetheless are inadequate for fully capturing this way of seeing and being in the world.

Key aspects of Indigenous epistemologies are relationality (we are all related to each other, to the natural environment, and to the spiritual world, and these relationships imply interdependencies), the interconnection between sacred and secular, and holism (everything is related and cannot be separated, and thus wholes must be maintained for understanding)… what Weber-Pillwax calls the “interconnectedness of all living things.”

Notions of Indigenous pedagogy are intertwined in Indigenous epistemology as learning (knowledge sharing) occurs through the process of observing and doing, and by interacting over long periods of time with elders in a natural environment. This learning process is subtle and unobtrusive and in non-Indigenous eyes it may not even be recognized as learning.




There are a growing number of global resources to guide recognition, understanding and valuing Indigenous knowledge, including the Principles & Guidelines for the Protection of the Heritage of Indigenous People and Science for the Twenty-first Century. Most university libraries, including UBC, have relatively easy portals for accessing books, articles, and resources on Indigenous research methodologies. (UBC portal)  See also, Marie Battiste’s literature review on Indigenous epistemology and pedagogy.

Anti-racist methodologies

There has been for some time a growing awareness of putting race at the centre of research projects, methodologies and theoretical approaches. Critical Race Theory asserts “racial inequality emerges from the social, economic, and legal differences that white people create between “races” to maintain elite white interests in labour markets and politics, giving rise to poverty and criminality in many minority communities. The CRT movement officially organized itself in 1989, at the first annual Workshop on Critical Race Theory, though its intellectual origins go back much further, to the 1960s and ’70s.” (Source) CRT as an orientation was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and originated as a legal movement to challenge and shift race paradigms in the US.

Anti-racist research is generally situated within a critical research theoretical perspective  given the focus on differential access to power for minoritized people seen through the lens of race, class, gender, and sexuality. Anti-racist research is not content with describing and understanding differences, but intends to understand, challenge and change values, beliefs and actions that sustain systemic racism.

Anti-racist research methodologies include critical ethnography, critical discourse analysis, critical narrative inquiry, and Indigenous research methodologies with attention to the relational aspects of research, that is, doing research with, not on, BIPOC.

Inclusive, anti-racist writing & knowledge representation

The new semester begins for many Universities with a ‘scholar strike,’ an action to draw attention to the Black Lives Matter movement, but also to all forms of racism and the privilege that many Whites have in relation to others, referred to collectively as BIPOC. (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour). This strike is meant to be a continuation of the need to undo Indigenous invisibility, anti-Blackness, dismantle white supremacy and advance racial justice.

Within research this can mean a number of things: listening to and learning about Indigenous research methodologies, reading research conducted by BIPOC, learning to talk, write, and review research in inclusive ways.

Inclusive, Anti-Racist Writing

Representation of knowledge is often overlooked as a critical element of research and when we adopt taken for granted ways of writing, representing and publishing we ignore the growing concerns for BIPOC. One place to start is with this book by Gregory Younging wherein he develops a principled way of writing about and writing from within an Indigenous worldview.

Younging elaborates on this set of ideas for writing and publishing:

1. Avoid using the past tense when you write about Indigenous Peoples.

Indigenous Peoples are not a historical phenomenon; they have not been assimilated into Canadian culture and they have not lost their own rich, distinct cultures. Indigenous Peoples are diverse, authentic, empowered and current.

2. Do not use language which props up the colonial idea that Indigenous Peoples are incapable of taking care of things themselves.

This manifests itself in language that implies Indigenous Peoples have no agency.

3. Do not use the possessive when talking about the Indigenous Peoples who live in a country.

Canada doesn’t “own” the First Nations, Métis or Inuit Peoples who live in what is now called Canada.

4. Do not whitewash Indigenous Peoples out of history.

5. Think about Indigenous Knowledge as holding its own copyright.

Give Oral Traditions and Traditional Knowledge the same weight and respect as printed texts. You need to ask for permission before reprinting Oral Traditions and Traditional Knowledge, exactly as you would with written texts.

6. Be prepared for consultation to take time.

Be aware that no one person is able to give permission; if copyright is held by a Nation, then there needs to be a proper consultation practice about sharing.

7. Collaborate and seek permission when writing about Traditional Knowledge.

If you’re writing about Indigenous People then contact them and discuss what you’d like to do. Be aware that Indigenous Protocols — which are more formal than “customs” — need to be adhered to, and often it may not be appropriate to write about matters which have sacred significance, or perhaps contain stories which may only be told by women, men, or at a particular time of the year.

8. Do not repeat inaccurate and offensive material.

9. Always choose Indigenous Style.

Capitalization may not be where you’d expect to see it. Use Indigenous style: Aboriginal, First Nations, Indigenous, Elder,  Longhouse, Clan, and so on.

10. Respect Elders.

Be aware of the important role of Elders within Indigenous societies and their role as holders of Traditional Knowledge and as community advisors.

11. Recognize and respect distinct and diverse Indigenous Peoples.

The Indigenous population in Canada is made up of Inuit, Métis, and some 634 different First Nations. Each has their own distinct Traditional Knowledge, culture and heritage. Avoid writing about ‘First Nations’ as though they are a homogenous group; instead, be specific and ask for people’s preferred self-declaration.

12. Understand Indigenous cultures do not need to be static to be authentic.

Indigenous Peoples are currently engaged in a period of cultural reclamation and rejuvenation. Indigenous cultures are dynamic and undergo natural change and adaptation, just like other cultures, and there are many manifestations of authentic indigeneity. This point is core to Thomas King’s work: The Inconvenient Indian and The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative.


A very short note on mixed methods

The many guises of mixed methods…

Mixed methods are used when there are two or more types of:

➢ research questions
➢ sampling procedures
➢ data collection procedures
➢ data
➢ data analysis
➢ conclusions

It is relatively easy to mix methods at the methods level, i.e., when the intent is to collect both quantitative and qualitative data. This can be accomplished within a single method. For example, you might use observation as a method and use an inventory to record frequency of behaviours, interactions, and so on. You could also record dialogue or take field notes occurring during this same observation. But this strategy may also mean using a method that generates numbers (likert scale item survey) and a method that generates words (oral history interview).

With mixed methods often one or the other paradigm is primarily emphasized and often there is a sequential use of one then the other paradigm. This chart illustrates possible variations.

Mixed methods research wants to move beyond this simple distinction of types of data and the field makes an effort to elevate the idea to a methodology, even sometimes crossing the epistemological boundaries of objectivism and social constructivism. A research study that uses interviews and participant observation, for example, is now not necessarily considered mixed methods research. Whereas, a research study that uses hermeneutics and times series analysis would be a mixed methods study. These different contexts also suggest the “mixing” can occur at different places within the research process.

Justification for mixed methods…

A primary justification for mixed methods is pragmatism. (Read, for example, David Morgan’s argument for this justification here.) Pragmatism asserts no first or foundational principles and suggests that all human knowledge is empirical, what John Dewey called “empirical metaphysics.” I confess to being unclear how the philosophical position of pragmatism is a justification for mixed methods—how does the primacy of experience lead to any particular methodology or method? And, is this a confusion of pragmatism with being pragmatic?

Related to this pragmatic justification is the triangulation justification, especially more contemporary notions of triangulation that focus on the complementarity and complexity added by multiple data sources, analyses, and so on. See my discussion of triangulation along these lines here.

Feyerabend’s “anarchist epistemology” might also justify mixed methods, either within the same study or across studies of the same or similar phenomena. This is in the big picture a more dialectical approach, working iteratively across paradigms rather than necessarily combining paradigms.

To justify mixed methods, one must at some level reject the incommensurability argument, i.e., the argument that the differences in epistemological theories cannot be overcome. (Note that the incommensurability argument at the level of the unit of measurement is easily overcome.)

In this article, Sommer Herrits’ illustrates two mixed methods (nested analysis and praxeological knowledge) approaches that operate at the paradigmatic level and result in substantially different emphases. I’ve included her summary comparison of the two approaches below.

Here are some additional resources for further exploring mixed methods…

Bergman, M. (2008). (Ed.) Advances in mixed methods research: Theories and applications. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Creswell, J. W. & Plano-Clark, V. L. (2018). Designing and Conducting Mixed Methods Research (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Greene, J.C. (2007). Mixed methods in social inquiry. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Journal of Mixed Methods Research
Tashakkori, A., & Teddlie, C. (2010). Handbook of mixed methods research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Teddlie, C., & Tashakkori, A. (2009). Foundations of mixed methods research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

And here is a good example of a study using mixed methodology…

Castro, F. G., & Coe, K. (2007). Traditions and alcohol use: A mixed-methods analysis. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13(4), 269–284.

narrative inquiry ~ what does it look like?

imgresIf you are searching for understanding about what narrative inquiry is, here are some starting points.

There are a number of journals that focus exclusively on narrative analysis/inquiry and so you might want to browse the tables of contents of various issues. There are many more journals (qualitative research focused and topical) that publish narrative analyses, but these will give you a quick entry into the methodology.

  • Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice
  • Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics: A Journal of Qualitative Research
  • Narrative Inquiry
  • Narrative
  • Narrative Works: Issues, Investigations & Interventions
  • Storyworlds: A Journal of Narrative Studies
  • Journal of Narrative Politics

Here also is a short list of published narrative analysis studies… these are not necessarily exemplary, but they are in different fields, use different kinds of data, and different kinds of analysis. Look at a few (not necessarily for a close reading) to get a better sense of what narrative inquiry looks like. Note that most of these articles are not published in the journals listed above, there are many many journals that publish narrative studies.



Bareiss, W. (2015). Adolescent Daughters and Ritual Abjection: Narrative Analysis of Self-Injury in Four US Films. Journal of Medical Humanities.

Boje, D.M. (1991). The Storytelling Organization: A Study of Story Performance in an Office-supply Firm. Administrative Science Quarterly 36:106-126.

Brewer, T. J. & deMarrais, K. (2015). Teacher for America counter-narratives: Alumni speak up and speak out. Peter Lang.

Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1999). Shaping a professional identity: Stories of educational practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Dean, R.G. (1995). Stories of AIDS: The Use of Narrative as an Approach to Understanding in an AIDS Support Group. Clinical Social Work Journal 23(3), 287-304.

Elliott, H., Squire, C., &  O’Connell, R. (2017). Narratives of normativity and permissible transgression: Mothers’ blogs about mothering, family and food in resource-constrained times. Forum: Qualitative Social Research, 18(1).

Freeman, M., Mathison, S. & Wilcox, K. (2006) “I hear when. I don’t hear what:” Performing parental dialogues on high stakes testing. Cultural Studies « Critical Methodologies. 6(4).

Frank, A. K. (2016). What is the story with sustainability? A narrative analysis of diverse and contested understandings. Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, 1 – 14.

Gautreaux M. & Delgado, S. (2016). Portrait of a Teach for All (TFA) teacher: Media narratives of the universal TFA teacher in 12 countries. EEPA, 24, 110.

Hamilton, H. (2008). Narrative as Snapshot: Glimpses into the Past in Alzheimer’s Discourse. Narrative Inquiry 18(1), 53-82.

Hoecker, R. (2014). Visual narrative and trauma recovery. Narrative Inquiry, 24(2), 259-280.

Langellier, K. (2001). ‘You’re Marked’: Breast Cancer, Tattoo and the Narrative Performance of Identity. In Narrative and Identity: Studies in Autobiography, Self, and Culture, edited by J. Brockmeier and D. Carbaugh. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Minde, J. (2015). Exploring the Nature of Narrative Analysis in Maps: the Case Study of the Georgia-South Ossetia Conflict. Narrative and Conflict: Explorations in Theory and Practice, 2(1), 19-33.

Mumby, D.K. 1993. Narrative and Social Control: Critical Perspectives. Newbury Park: Sage.

Ochs, E., R. Smith, and C. Taylor. (1989). Dinner Narratives as Detective Stories. Cultural Dynamics 2:238-257.

Page, R., Harper, R. & Frobenius, M. (2013). From small stories to networked narrative: The evolution of personal narratives in Facebook status updates. Narrative Inquiry, 23(1), 192-213).

Riessman, C.K. (2000). Stigma and Everyday Resistance Practices: Childless Women in South India. Gender & Society 14(1):111-135.

Sparkes, A. (1996). The fatal flaw: A narrative of the fragile body-self. Qualitative Inquiry, 2(4), 463-494.

Winkel, G. (2014). When the pendulum doesn’t find its center: Environmental narratives, strategies, and forest policy change in the US Pacific Northwest. Global Environmental Change, 27, 84-95.

narrative and social change

There is the telling of a story and the hearing of a story. Researchers often focus on telling the story, whether it is an individual, organizational or cultural story. If narrative is a fundamental as Jerome Bruner and others say it is, then both parts… the telling and the hearing… are equally important. Story telling (narrative) that embraces the goal of social change requires both.

Narrative 4 is an initiative that:

harnesses the power of the story exchange to equip and embolden young adults to improve their lives, communities, and the world.

In workshops, young adults often with very different perspectives and life experiences are paired. Each tells their story and listens to the other’s story, and then each retells the other’s story… in the first person. This role reversal, taking the other’s perspective, is key to the transformative possibility of this approach, which is meant to capitalize on story telling to foster empathy and in school contexts also to:

  • Develop active listening skills
  • Engage in peer-to-peer learning
  • Practice public speaking skills
  • Improve self-reflection and self-awareness
  • Experience an overall increase in positive emotions

Narrative 4 projects focus on the environment, identity, immigration, faith, and violence, and capitalize on polar opposite life experiences and values. They have organized story exchanges with Jewish and Arab teenagers; survivors of the 2010 Haitian earthquake and Hurricane Katrina; victims of gun violence and gun advocatesstudents from poor and elite schools; intergenerational experiences; students and police. 

PhotoVoice is another methodology that has potential to explore narratives that foster awareness and change. Images that tell a story of lived experience are communicated in public presentations to inform and compel attention be paid to social change. Other participatory research approaches can and do incorporate story telling.

Many non-profits offer guidance for using story telling to support social change.

Frameworks Institute

Living Proof: Telling Your Story to Make a Difference (book)

Hatch for Good

Working Narratives

Story for All


Spark Your Storytelling


methodology as recipe

A challenging idea for many graduate students learning how to do interpretive and critical research is that one must make a commitment to a research methodology. The two most common errors/scenarios are that students want to begin with research methods (ways of making and analyzing data) or research design features (the most common is to say they want to do a case study, a topic I discuss in some detail here.)

Screen Shot 2014-03-27 at 4.34.21 PMI find Michael Crotty’s definitions and relationships among the elements that frame research helpful. See this image and here, for a short note on this.

A methodology is a framework that contains core ideas reflecting more fundamental epistemological and ontological groundings, but it also provides guidance on the focus of our inquiry, key concepts, values, and often a hint at methods (although this is a separate matter). A methodology contains core definitional foci and cue us to what to expect in a research project. Methodologies also give us a sense of what we might expect the outcome/product of the research to be, even though there is tremendous variation in representational forms within any methodology.

Methodology as Recipeimgres

To help students understand what a methodology is and why we need one, I use the metaphor of methodology as recipe. A recipe is a framework for preparing food: it has a name that reflects what the outcome will be; a list of ingredients, procedural guidelines; tools and techniques; and often a color photo to show us what the food should look like when we are finished. And, different recipes illustrate fundamental differences. For example, a recipe for a chocolate cake and one for beef stew vary on all of these features and are therefore about something quite different. One would never follow a recipe for a chocolate cake and expect to end up with beef stew.

Chocolate Cake                                                            Beef Stew

flour, sugar, cocoa, eggs, butter                            beef, broth, carrots, potatoes, onions

whisking, stirring, mixing                                         chopping, browning, deglazing

mixer, cake pan, whisk                                              knives, heavy pot

baking                                                                               braising, stewing

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.47.08 PM Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 4.47.34 PM

A methodology is a framework for doing research: it contains a name that reflects the outcome; what is needed to identify the research as being within that framework; procedures and tools; and we often have a general notion of what the outcome will look like.


culture, language, rituals, artifacts

field work: prolonged engagement, participant observation, interviewing, kinship charts, mapping, SNA

field notes, photographs, transcripts

thick description; analysis with cultural categories; emic perspective

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 5.03.37 PM




Novice cooks and researchers are more likely to follow recipes closely, developing the knowledge and skills that will in time free them from a specific recipe while still working within the recipe framework. A good cook might substitute Guinness beer for some broth in the beef stew, but she is still making beef stew. An ethnographer might substitute live field note taking using social media for more traditional field notes, but she is still taking field notes.

Without a methodology a research project is ungrounded, drifting and has a high probability of being atheoretical. With a methodology, with a recipe, the researcher plans on making an ethnography or a narrative analysis or a hermeneutic investigation because the core ideas, the ingredients, the tools are valued and indeed reflect deeper senses of the nature of both the world and knowledge about it.

learning by example

If you think you will do interpretive or critical research it will be helpful to see what this kind of research looks like. Reading other studies is a window into the research process as well as the ways researchers represent knowledge from their studies. While many genres of research trade in the peer reviewed journal article, to get the most pedagogical benefit from reading qualitative research look more to book and monograph length works. First, good studies are complex and so it just takes more than 25 ms pages to communicate the findings. Second, increasingly interpretive and critical researchers include a confessional methodological tale in an appendix, a rich source of learning from others.

This is not really a part of the literature review for your study (although it could be) and to avoid conflating reading studies related to your research topic with learning
about research methodology and methods, I require my students and encourage others to read book length works that are not in your area of expertise. You might learn something about which you know little, but more importantly can focus on the research process more easily.

So what do I recommend as teachable/learnable texts, remembering that you are not looking for a perfect study but rather a really well done study that has flaws and features that permit you to see how the research process plays out in real research life.

The lists below hews mostly to education and schooling, but not exclusively.imgres

The books I have most often used in my research classes are:

God’s Choice by Alan Peshkin
Dude You’re a Fag by A. J. Pascoe
Ain’t No Makin’ It by Jay MacLeod
Working Class Without Work by Lois Weiss
Home Advantage by Annette Lareau

But, it’s good to go back to what I consider classic texts:

Boys in White by Blanche Geer, Everett C Hughes, Anselm Strauss, Howard Becker
Street Corner Society by William Foote Whyte
The Man in the Principal’s Office by Harry Wolcott
Deep Play: Notes on a Balinese Cockfight by Clifford Geertz (this is more a monograph, but too good not to list)
Learning to Labour by Paul Willis
Living and Dying in Murray Manor by Jaber F. Gubrium
Contradictions of Control by Linda McNeil
Life in Schools by Peter McLaren
The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by Florian Znaniecki and W. I. Thomas
Asylums by Erving Goffman

And, I can’t resist adding what has to be the most controversial piece of research in quite some time…

On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman


case study ~ research design, methodology, method?

Since the early 80s when I did my MA degree I have been steeped in “case study research,” and I have the deepest respect for those who have articulated the importance of focusing on the particular in social science research (Robert Yin, Robert Stake, Sharon Merriam, for example). The work of these individuals is valuable ~ Yin provides a valuable foundation for why we should look at cases, and Stake has added detail about different motivations for looking at cases.

With a background in sociology and cultural anthropology my early exposure to case studies created little confusion ~ I was and remain interested in the particular. So researching and understanding a case make conceptual sense. Being schooled in ethnography as a methodology meant that using the language of case study provided a way to engage the tools of ethnography in a flexible way, focusing on pretty much anything that can be identified as a case, that is, a bounded system. Indeed, Creswell defines case study as “an in-depth exploration of a bounded system (e.g., an activity, event, process, or individuals) based on extensive data collection” and he goes on to clarify what a bounded system is: “the case is separated out for research in terms of time, place, or some physical boundaries.” The coupling of a bounded case in naturalistic settings aligns these methodological ideas with interpretivist and critical perspectives on research, but a case can also be investigated within a post-positivist perspective.

In his 2000 book, The Art of Case Study Research, Bob Stake characterized case studies as intrinsic, instrumental or collective. Intrinsic cases are those that are inherently interesting to a researcher, perhaps because of their uniqueness or peculiarity. Instrumental cases are those that researchers study because they have features connected to bigger concepts and that provide an empirical instance to study a bigger idea. Collective case study is looking at multiple cases often with a desire to compare and understand variation, in other words it is a collection of instrumental cases.

So far, we have case study as the investigation of bounded systems that we are motivated to investigate with three possible intentions. Sounds like a very important feature of research design.

But is it a methodology?

Research methodology is a framework that guides research practice ~ it is the theoretical frame that pulls epistemology forward into a discourse that further articulates the nature of knowledge and that guides our choice of methods. Crotty describes it as: “the strategy, plan of action, process or design lying behind the choice and use of particular methods and linking the choice and methods to the desired [research] outcomes.” Note that methodology is a theoretical framework. An important feature of methodologies is that they have substantive content, notions about what the focus of the research will be. If one does ethnography, for example, some notion of culture (even if adapted substantially from cultural anthropology) is central to the investigation. If one does critical research, some notion of power (and likely inequity) is central to the investigation. If one does narrative research, some notion of storying is central. So methodologies bring together salient, foundational social constructs with features of doing research. One could argue that certain methodologies logically entail the investigation of cases, in which case, case study could be an element of a methodology, but that it is only one among a number of elements.

So where does this leave case study as a methodology? What are the foundational social constructs that are central to it as a methodology? Here is where the logic breaks down. Looking at a case, in a natural setting, doing extensive data collection in natural settings doesn’t begin to hint at any particular foundational social constructs… inevitably researchers must draw on some other methodology for those. There is considerable variation in methodologies that inform what one does when investigating a case, and even when researchers do not articulate their methodology it lurks in the articulation of what those central social constructs are and the means by which we investigate them (reflection on pre-reflected experience in phenomenology; story telling in narrative analysis; culture in ethnography; and so on).

Terminology is inconsistent in discussions of research ~ there is a bewildering, often rolling sea of ideas, concepts, and practices to navigate in learning about research. There is no single ship of understanding, but thoughtful (re)articulation of the ideas underlying the theoretical and practical aspects of research is part of being in a community of social science researchers.


Further reading: This recently published comparative analysis of Yin, Stake & Merriam‘s take on what case study research is explicates their positions well, and I think still leaves unanswered the fundamental question of what case study is. My view of case study as a feature of research design is unchanged.

Learning to be a better researcher… by being a research participant

section_volunteerResearchers are egocentric… the research they do stems from their interests and motivations. That’s a given. Within interpretive research methodologies this egocentric position is tempered by the interpersonal intersection of researchers’ interests with those of their research participants. Mostly I am a researcher, but I have also been a research participant and these different vantage points provide useful lessons for thinking about how we conceptualize research participants’ engagement with us and how we treat those who participate in our research.

In general, the interests of the researcher are more important, and procedures to protect research participants are institutionalized through research review boards. For example, research participants’ identities are anonymized to encourage them to participate and protect them from harm, embarrassment, possibly even legal sanctions should the details of their lives become known. (Whether this makes sense is debatable ~  for a good discussion see Jan Nespor’s article Anonymity and place in qualitative research.)

But, equally important is the shield anonymity provides the researcher, shielding them from research participants’ challenges if and when they see how their experiences, thoughts, and emotions are used as data, as well as shielding them from professional critique since data sources (and often data) are held in secret (this is, in part, the current criticism leveled against Alice Goffman). I was able to read the research report of the study I participated in because I know how to access research, cultural capital that researchers might safely assume (hope?) most research participants don’t have.

Narratives of Research Participant Reaction

Here are three sketches of research participant reaction to a published account of the research in which they were involved. All are real. There are a number of lessons to be learned, but I will draw out just a couple.

1. In an introductory doctoral level interpretive research course students read Lois Weis’ Working Class Without Work, a study of an upstate NY high school. A student in the course had been a student in that high school and felt Weiss had understood well some of the gender related occupational aspirational conflict, but demonstrated misunderstandings of the role of the school in students’ future aspirations.

2. I read the dissertation, the report of the research I participated in, and found conversations between myself and the researcher that were not about the research focus had been included as data to corroborate evidence of my behavior and motivations as a mother. I was unaware of this until I read the completed dissertation as neither the analysis nor final dissertation were shared with the research participants.

3. A doctoral student used narrative inquiry to investigate parental experiences dealing with adult children with mental illness. His decision to use a first person story telling strategy was seen as misrepresentation by one parental participant who withdrew consent for including their data in the study.

Involving Research Participants to Get It ‘Right’

As researchers we want to get it as ‘right’ as we can and there are a number of strategies often invoked to do so. The most common are developing a habit of self-reflexivity (often manifest in journal writing), member-checking (an unfortunate term introduced by Guba & Lincoln), using key informants, and peer debriefing. These strategies are of value only if we as researchers practice them seriously.

Member-checking or informant feedback (the term I’ll use) is when researchers share research data, analysis or reports with participants to ensure categories, constructs, explanations and interpretations “ring true” and to explore what might be missing. This is a much talked about and seldom used strategy.

I suspect most researchers avoid informant feedback because it entails: the possibility of creating more, new data (like in sketch #1 and #2); invites potential disagreements and conflict with research participants (like in all three sketches); and invites research participants to opt out of the research study should they not like what they see or how they are represented (like happened in sketch #3). I also suspect most researchers do not see the value in the iterative process of multiple engagements with research participants in the space of data making and interpretation, seeing them as worthy of one but not multiple viewings (like in sketch #1 and #2). Within any interpretivist or critical research methodology this is a contradictory stance, and in establishing respectful relationships with research participants this is a disrespectful stance.

I suspect most researchers worry about the purpose, conditions and consequences of seeking informant feedback ~ can research participants give informed, useful feedback? should I change what I’ve written? does the research participant have veto power? will I destroy the rapport I have if research participants don’t agree with my analysis? Informant feedback is more likely to lead to confusion and contradiction than confirmation and clarity ~ a situation, which I have argued in delineating the process of triangulation, that ought to be invited not avoided by researchers. This is critically important.  If researchers use informant feedback they should think in advance how feedback will be used and to be transparent with research participants about that.

It is also critical to care about whether you are getting it as ‘right’ as possible, and that means not avoiding informant feedback because it may challenge your ideas. Regrettably, this avoidance is safeguarded by the conventions of anonymity and confidentiality that shield researchers from engagement with research participants who cede their right to engage publicly with the researcher by agreeing to those conventions ~ a Gordian knot.

Presentation of Self as Researcher

I suggest novice researchers develop a 30 second or so introduction of themselves as researchers to be used in the research context. A reminder to all that you are here as a researcher and what you are interested in… over the course of a research study it will be needed less and less but it should also be a reminder to self. Screen Shot 2015-07-07 at 12.49.20 PM If we have extended interactions with research participants it is easy to forget that we are researchers and not friends, neighbours, confidants, compatriots, lovers, and so on. We may become those things, but then we are no longer just researchers and the challenge of distinguishing what is within the parameters of the research becomes cloudy, and we may enter into a murky moral ambiguity of ethics and intimacy. (The classic example of this is Harry Wolcott’s relationship with Brad, summarized from his perspective in his book Sneaky Kid and It’s Aftermath.)

Researchers bear greater responsibility than research participants to maintain clarity about their role and their legitimate access to or defining what is data, what is within the boundaries of the research project. In sketch #2, some of my conversations with the researcher had nothing to do with the research topic. I gave this no thought at the time but implicitly assumed they were interactions between if not friends then perhaps a professor and doctoral student, the other most significant roles we played in relation to one another. Even as an experienced researcher, I was naive as a research participant and let the researcher in on too much of my life ~ even being ‘friends’ on Facebook during the research to then be unfriended upon completion of the research project. I mistook this gesture as ‘friendship’ when in hindsight it was data collection, albeit never negotiated as such with me.

Being clear that we are researchers should be ever present in our minds, but as researchers we need to insure it is ever present in research participants’ minds as well. “Anything you say [or do] can and will be used as data by me” might be more useful at protecting research participants than many of the promises institutionalized by research review boards.

We should remind ourselves…

narcissism should not prevail

and being a researcher is simply not a license to tell all.